Maybe it's because I'm trying to organize my 2008 taxes, or maybe it's the thought of having too many projects on my plate, or perhaps it's the uncertainty of the shakeout from the current collapse of capitalism as we have known it—whatever the cause, or causes, I woke up this morning, February 1, 2009, full of anxiety for myself and the world around me. To make matters worse, I sat up in bed and read Ben McGrath's article "The Dystopians" in the January 26 New Yorker in which he mockingly writes about James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Chellis Glendinning, and other prophets of doom, as he calls them. Their collective worldview is not a happy one, to be sure: cannibalism being about the only ill not forecast for American society as people struggle to survive in the wake of civilization's predicted crash.
Although I don't share these authors' pessimism (or contempt) about the American economy, I was a big fan of both Kunstler and Glendinning in the mid 1990's, for they expressed many criticisms of our culture with which I agreed—mainly that it was (and is) unsustainable, but also ugly (for the most part), and largely devoid of soul. My own answer has been to live in aesthetically pleasing (also known as "authentic", or "older") homes and neighborhoods, to rely (as I always have) on my entrepreneurial adaptability, and to try to hone my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual honesty to a soulful edge. I, too, have predicted an unraveling of the economic order—anyone who was paying attention knew that the stock market, like the housing market, was hugely overvalued and that gamblers and criminals in government and in corporate boardrooms were playing fast and loose with the economy.
But, in spite of the current crisis—and in spite of Reaganomics and 8 years of Bush/Cheney—I have maintained a slightly more optimistic view of the future than McGrath's "Dystopians." I agree with them that the consumer-driven economy of the past 50 years needs to radically change course; I agree with them that the entire infrastructure of western civilization is far too interdependent and fragile (just imagine the possibility of a week-long power outage in New York City). However, I don't predict that we'll be reduced to a 19th century world, where horses provide the main means of work and transportation; and I don't expect that we'll all have to stock up on a year's supply of rice and beans and take up guns to defend our homes against marauding hordes of starving men. (Back in the late seventies and early eighties I used to believe these things, and stocked up accordingly. But I got over it.)
Like George Bush (did I actually SAY that!!) I have an enormous faith in the ingenuity of the American people. I think we CAN transform our economy, that we can adapt, that we can develop and adopt new, efficient technologies, and that we can live sustainably. For some people these changes will be voluntary, but the likelihood is that many adaptations will be forced on us, either by market forces or by a proactive government. (There used to be a day, before the domination of American politics by right wing ideologues, when the government actually regulated things—like requiring seatbelts and CAFÉ standards—and acted in ways generally beneficial to the American people). As a culture, we are already changing from the inside, and our collective values are getting better all the time. Just look at whom we, the American people, just elected to the White House!
Change is always uncomfortable, and for many people the radical changes needed to avoid the kind of collapse predicted by the gloom and doomers is going to be painful. But solutions are out there. We can bring back to America many of the jobs and means of production we have exported to the 3rd world. In fact, we'll have to if the peak oilers are right and the rising costs of intercontinental transportation erase the "competitive advantage" of cheap labor in Asia—or if progressive policies ensure that 3rd world laborers are given a "living wage." We can transform our own markets, increasing demand for super high efficiency products like compact fluorescent light bulbs while eliminating waste. We can transform our behavior, too. We probably don't need 5,000 square feet of living space per nuclear family, and we don't need to fill up all that space with cheap junk. (I actually don't know many people who live like that, but that's probably because most of my family and friends came out of the counter culture of the '60's and are "early adaptors").
In any event, it seems obvious that we can't spend our way out of the current crisis without digging ourselves into a deeper crisis, as predicted by the Dystopians. With intelligent and courageous political leadership we can seize the moment and turn ourselves around. It will take many extraordinary measures, and a lot of people are going to need government help to ensure that they don't go homeless and hungry in the short term, but we can do this.
There, now I feel better.